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Portland Trail Blazers Improving Defense: Where's it Coming From? Is it Real?

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This edition of the Blazer's Edge Mailbag tackles reader questions about Portland's improving defense, Thomas Robinson's minutes, and whether Kobe Bryant is a bad example for all.

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With a few days off between games, a Double Edition of the Blazer's Edge Mailbag is coming your way. We're going to bookend Part 1 with a couple announcements.

You may have noticed the logo change that's swept SBNation sites, including Blazer's Edge. It heralds the "It's On Us" campaign spearheaded by our parent company in conjunction with the White House. The goal is to raise awareness about sexual assaults on college campuses. You can read a full explanation here or just watch this PSA to get the idea:

We support SBNation's efforts and affirm that healthy intimate relationships are build on foundations of trust, respect, and consent.

Onward to your questions!

Dave -

I've never emailed during a game, but am going to stop yelling at my TV long enough to fire this off. Does it seem to you that the Blazer coaches decide who is coming off the bench each game and then stick with it pretty much regardless of how the game is going? Freeland was BRUTAL against the Pelicans. Missed shots, missed rebounds, turnovers... Try someone else on a night he clearly doesn't have it. With Aldridge slowed and Batum out, would have loved to see T-Robs energy.

Thanks,
Matt

I love in-game Mailbag questions! They contain at least 180% of the passion of normal Mailbag questions.

Thomas Robinson has had some fine outings for the Blazers so far this season. He hasn't earned a regular rotation spot, though. Only 7 guys can make that claim and you know their names by heart. Everyone else plays based on matchups, momentum, or what they've shown in practice and games. You could substitute any name south of Steve Blake in your question and it'd still read accurately.

Against New Orleans specifically I can understand why Robinson's number wasn't called. Everything he brings to the table Anthony Davis also brings...and then some. Davis can match T-Rob's athleticism plus he's bigger and more skilled. Of all Portland's power forwards, Robinson is the least likely to draw Davis out of the lane on defense, leaving the monster shot-blocker where he can do the most damage. This matchup was a bad bet for Portland.

One can argue for Robinson against New Orleans' bench players but guarding Ryan Anderson would take Robinson way away from the bucket, negating his strengths. Plus Portland's bench did pretty darn well in the third period against the Pelicans reserves even without Robinson.

I also disagree about Joel Freeland's contributions this week. It's been subtle, but he's made a difference with his minutes and played quite well.

Hey,

Last season our defense was average at best, and 11 games in it seems significantly better, even with Batum (our best wing defender) out for a few games. Since we brought back mostly the same team, whats been the big upgrade that caused the improved defense?

Corey

It's not fair to compare 11 games this season against a full season last year, but for the sake of this discussion we'll indulge a little.

So far the Blazers have made marked improvement in three defensive categories: Field Goal Percentage Allowed, Three-Point Percentage Allowed, Points in the Paint Allowed.

The Blazers have benefited from early-season matchups against relatively poor percentage shooting teams, both overall and from the arc. Portland's defense had something to do with that, but in general their opponents have also shot poorly against the rest of their competition. That doesn't discount the improvement, but it does bring extra asterisks to any conclusion we draw from those numbers. The Blazers might be much better in those areas or the advantage might even out as the season progresses.

The early schedule has brought some of the heavier paint-scoring teams Portland's way. Despite that, Portland's paint defense has improved from 45.9 points per game allowed (28th in the league) last year to 41.6 points allowed (18th in the league). 4 points per game is a big number. If the Blazers can keep that up, they're going to be looking good come the end of the year.

The non-schedule reasons for this leap could include:

1. Residue from Portland's early (poor) 2013-14 numbers polluting last year's totals even though the team addressed paint defense midway through the year.

2. Chris Kaman defending better than a young Meyers Leonard or an out-of-position Joel Freeland and Thomas Robinson when Robin Lopez hits the pines.

3. The Blazers no longer depending on Lopez to handle every center in single coverage. They send help or change up defenders sooner than they did last year. In particular, when you see a straight-line drive into the lane against Portland you'll usually see 2-3 defenders collapsing to cover instead of one guy standing there waiting to get scored on.

4. The Blazers no longer depending on perimeter players to stop penetration in isolation. They have their centers pick up dribblers and helping guards on screens. We've seen an uptick of opponents shooting jumpers over Portland centers but a downswing in penetration down the heart of the lane against a recovering big guy.

The Blazers still aren't world-beaters in the lane and frankly I expect teams with more perimeter prowess to spread the court against Portland to good effect. But the Blazers have found a happy place with their defensive plan. After last year, that's a nice development.

Dave,

Is the death spiral that is Kobe and his team of rejects the best possible outcome for the NBA and its fans?

An entire generation has idolized Kobe, even many of our guys. But he's always personified the idea that if you are you are good enough, you can treat everyone else like dirt. That mentality has finally caught up with him as he's chased off all of the talent that their management has managed to bring on. Now all that is left is a bunch of players that no one else wants.

So could this be an valuable lesson for our upcoming superstars, whether it's in basketball or other facets of life? He's certainly attained a significant amount of hardware, money, and legend, but I can't help but feel that there will always be this slight asterisk of what could have been if he was just a little more of a team player both on and off the court.

--Mike

I don't think there's a Kobe-Bryant-based lesson for this incarnation of the Trail Blazers because there's no real Bryant analogue on the team. LaMarcus Aldridge's style is radically different than Bryant's. Damian Lillard is closer but he's not reached Kobe's level of production or shot-selection yet.

But even if the next Kobe was coming down the pipeline, stop and think for a minute.

Let's pretend someone comes up to you and says, "You can draft a guy who will end up as a serious candidate for the NBA's Mount Rushmore and will help bring you 5 titles in 7 Finals appearances over the course of his career, but he'll dominate the ball and when he hits his mid-30's life will suck for a couple years." Would you take that deal? Yes sir, you would take that deal. Even if they said, "If he played just slightly different you could have 9 Finals appearances and 7 rings but that'll never happen..." you'd respond with, "What? Can't hear you. I'm still mesmerized by 5 World Championships to our team's credit."

That's going to be the lesson of Kobe Bryant. If you're really, really amazing you can win titles. If you're amazing enough to win multiple titles you can play and act pretty much how you want and nobody will call you on it or make you behave differently. That's the way of professional sports. Kobe may be the latest example but he's hardly unique.

There's no real negative to Bryant's career as a whole even if the Lakers are suffering at the tail end of it. The lesson for the Blazers isn't, "Be less like Kobe" (because they aren't like him in the first place). Rather it's, "Be more like the Spurs." San Antonio's positive example far outweighs Bryant's flaws as a teaching point.

Before we leave, a final announcement from SBNation's basketball division:

Come test your NBA GM skills against SB Nation's writers and editors and other community members by playing in our exclusive FanDuel tournament this Wednesday!

If you are the competitive and/or wagering type you can click here to join Wednesday's tournament.

If you are not already a member of FanDuel click here and you'll get a 100% first time matching deposit bonus ($200 max) to exclusive to SB Nation readers.

I'm not participating in the tournament personally but I know a lot of SBNation basketball writers are pretty excited about it. But I always say that 1 Trail Blazers fan is worth 8 experts from any other franchise, so...you know.

More Mailbag questions are coming tomorrow! You can submit yours to blazersub@gmail.com. We'll try to tackle them in one form or another as the weeks progress.

--Dave blazersub@gmail.com / @DaveDeckard@Blazersedge